With yesterday’s announcement of the new third-generation iPod Shuffle, Apple also released iTunes 8.1 last night.

In addition to providing support for the new third-generation iPod Shuffle, the major new features of iTunes 8 include an enhanced Party Shuffle feature now known as iTunes DJ, alleged Genius support for Movies and TV Shows, AutoFill for all iPod models, a new preset for CD importing and some changes to parental controls. Apple also indicates that the new version includes performance and accessibility improvements.

 

As usual, we dig in a bit deeper and take a more detailed look at what has and what hasn’t changed in iTunes 8.1.

Downloading the Update

To update iTunes, either download the new version directly from Apple’s web site at http://www.apple.com/itunes/download, or choose the “Check for Updates” option in your existing version of iTunes, which will trigger the Apple Software Update application and scan for new Apple software.

The download itself is approximately 70 MB for Windows users, and 65 MB for Mac users. Unlike previous iTunes updates, this one is not accompanied by an update to Quicktime, although the Windows installer still includes QuickTime for those users who may be installing iTunes for the first time rather than upgrading.

A 13MB Front Row update is also available for Mac users to provide improved compatibility with iTunes 8.1.

Initial Startup

If you are coming from iTunes 7.6 or later, iTunes 8.1 does not perform any noticeable library database upgrades or maintenance during initial startup, suggesting that only minor structural changes have been made to the iTunes database.

Further, iTunes does tag the version number within the iTunes database somewhere, so you will not be able to revert to an earlier version of iTunes without restoring your iTunes library database from an earlier pre-upgrade backup

iTunes DJ

iTunes 8.1 introduces a new spin on the venerable Party Shuffle feature. Now renamed “iTunes DJ” this feature behaves in much the same way as the original Party Shuffle feature but adds one significant twist: Anybody on your network with an iPhone or iPod touch and Apple’s Remote application can now see information about the current playing queue, request songs, and even vote on upcoming songs in the queue. Songs with more votes are pushed up in the queue over songs with fewer votes.

 

Using the iTunes DJ feature is similar to using Party Shuffle: Drag-and-drop songs into the iTunes DJ list to add them to the DJ queue or go into the iTunes DJ queue and choose a playlist to pull content from using the settings bar at the bottom of the screen. The additional Party Shuffle settings previously found here have been moved to a separate settings screen that is now accessed by the “Settings” button on the right-hand side.

 

You can also right-click on any track within your iTunes library to see options for adding it to the iTunes DJ queue. You can either begin playing it immediately, queue it to play after the currently-playing track, or simply add it to the bottom of the queue. Note that the option to begin playing the selected track immediately is new in iTunes 8.1.

 

iTunes DJ expands upon the older Party Shuffle system by adding an optional voting feature to help prioritize the order in which items are played when using iTunes DJ in a party setting. This option is off by default, but can be enabled from the iTunes DJ settings screen.

With voting enabled, items added to the DJ queue are automatically given a vote rating and prioritized by the number of votes, rather than simply being dropped at the bottom. Items with more votes play sooner than items with fewer votes. Attempting to re-add the same item to the queue simply increases its number of votes, possibly moving it further up in the queue. The total number of votes for each item is shown in a “Votes” column in the iTunes DJ queue listing.

 

You can also increase the vote for a given item by right-clicking on it in the queue and choosing “Like it” from the context menu.

 

While this is obviously intended for a group or party setting, the iTunes interface itself lacks the simplicity that would be needed to expose it to your guests. For example, even while iTunes DJ is playing its queue, double-clicking a track from anywhere else will interrupt the DJ playback and begin playing from that playlist instead; it would be far more useful if there were a “DJ mode” that could be enabled with a simplified browser where all play requests are submitted to the iTunes DJ queue.

On the other hand, however, Apple has provided a very nice user interface for the iTunes DJ feature in the form of their iPhone and iPod touch Remote application. With the release of iTunes 8.1, the Apple Remote app was also updated to v1.2, and continues to be available as a free download from the iTunes App Store. Apple Remote v1.2 combined with iTunes 8.1 adds a “Guest” mode where anybody on your local network can fire up the Remote app on their device to see what is currently playing from your iTunes DJ queue, vote on other songs in the queue or request additional songs to be played from your library, thus adding them to the queue.

 

The Remote app even provides an automatic Genius lookup feature to allow you or your guests to quickly see related songs from your iTunes library. Selecting any song will bring up a list of Genius recommendations for that current track. Users can choose from this list of recommendations and continue exploring your iTunes library in this manner.

 

If you do not have the voting feature enabled, the remote app can still be used by your guests, but any requested songs are simply queued up to be played next, rather than being prioritized by vote. In the iTunes DJ options, you can also enter a welcome message to be displayed to your guests when they access your library or require a password to be entered for your iTunes library – useful if you’re on a more open Wi-Fi access point and want to limit access.

 

Guest mode on the Remote will only appear if the Remote app has not already been associated with your iTunes library. From your own device, you simply access and control your iTunes library normally. However the new Remote app provides the iTunes DJ option within your playlists to provide you with more direct control over the iTunes DJ queue. From here you can not only view the queue and the number of votes, but also begin playing a specific song immediately or queue it up to play next.

 

Trying to play a song from another playlist while iTunes DJ is in use will prompt you with an option to add the song to the iTunes DJ queue (Request Song) or stop iTunes DJ and begin playing that playlist normally.

 

Ironically, while iTunes DJ appears to be the most significant new feature in iTunes 8.1 it also appears to be the least-advertised. The iTunes “What’s New” and “Features” pages on Apple’s web site make virtually no mention of it as a new feature, and the release notes, rather than explaining what iTunes DJ is simply indicate that iTunes 8.1 now “Allows friends to request songs for iTunes DJ.” Further, the Remote app on the iTunes App Store page simply lists the update as providing “bug fixes and compatibility with iTunes 8.1.”

Genius Support for Movies and TV Shows

The release notes for iTunes 8.1 indicate that it “Adds Genius sidebar for your Movies and TV Shows”—a feature that doesn’t appear to actually be there. The Genius sidebar options remain available only when viewing actual music content, and if you select a non-music item from a playlist, you can view the Genius sidebar, but are presented with the standard message that the Genius sidebar only works with music.

 

There appear to be no other visible preference options that would enable this, and we even tried manually updating our Genius data and turning Genius off entirely and re-enabling it with no success. Since Apple generally does not hide new features, we can only assume that this feature may have been pulled from iTunes 8.1 at the last minute and the release notes were not appropriately updated. It should also be noted that as of today, the iTunes 8 Features page no longer makes any reference to the Genius feature as being available for anything other than music content.

AutoFill—Not Just for the Shuffle anymore

With the release of the iPod Shuffle in 2005, Apple added a feature to iTunes to allow you to automatically fill your iPod Shuffle to capacity with an automatic selection of content, either from your iTunes library or a specific playlist. This feature was only made available for the lower-capacity iPod Shuffle as well as iTunes Phones such as the Motorola ROKR.

With iTunes 8.1, Apple has now made the AutoFill feature available for all iPod models and even the iPhone. To use AutoFill, you must be managing the content on your iPod manually rather than using automatic sync. The AutoFill option itself for the larger iPod models is not in an obvious a location as it is with the iPod Shuffle; to access it you must click on the triangle marker to the left of your iPod in your iTunes Devices list to expand its content, and then specifically select the “Music” item. The AutoFill options are shown at the bottom of the main panel in much the same way as for the iPod Shuffle.

 

The layout of the AutoFill section has also been slightly modified from previous versions. The only configuration option now displayed on the AutoFill bar itself is your playlist selection, which as with previous versions can be either a specific iTunes playlist, or the “Music” library category to simply select content from your entire iTunes library. AutoFill’s other configuration options are now accessed from a “Settings” button which appears on the right-hand side of the AutoFill bar.

 

The AutoFill settings themselves are the same as before: You can choose to replace all items whenever you AutoFill your iPod, choose items randomly rather than in playlist order, give preference to higher-rated items, and reserve a certain amount of space on your iPod for disk mode.

Note that AutoFill only works for music tracks. Video content such as Movies, TV Shows and even Music Videos must still be transferred manually as before. As in previous versions, podcasts can still be synced automatically when using manual mode. AutoFill will not remove any other types of content from your iPod, but will only use the space remaining. On the other hand, if you later decide to add a movie or TV show, you are going to have to manually remove some content to make room for it unless you’ve already adjusted the AutoFill settings to reserve some space.

When we saw that AutoFill had been added for the other iPod models, we had also hoped that iTunes 8.1 would bring across another Shuffle-only feature with it: the ability to automatically transcode higher bit-rate songs when transferring them to the iPod. Sadly, this is not the case, and automatic transcoding during transfer remains the exclusive domain of the iPod Shuffle.

Ultimately, while this may be a nice feature for new iPod users who are just getting started, the value of it is somewhat limited since the selection is relatively random and you must manually initiate the process by finding and clicking the AutoFill button; it does not simply happen when you connect your iPod. Using automatic sync with Smart Playlists is definitely a better option for most users.

iTunes Plus CD Import Quality

The release notes in iTunes 8.1 indicate that CDs can now “be imported at the same sound quality as iTunes Plus.” What this basically boils down to is that iTunes 8.1 has now added a new preset named “iTunes Plus” which produces 256kbps Variable Bit Rate (VBR) AAC files.

 

This is in contrast to the previous “Higher Quality” AAC preset, which produced 256kbps Constant Bit Rate (CBR) AAC files.

 

However, the ability to produce “iTunes Plus Quality” files is not specifically new to iTunes 8.1. In previous versions of iTunes, the same setting could be accomplished by using a “Custom” import setting and manually setting 256kbps and enabling VBR.

 

Further, the new “iTunes Plus” preset is now the default for new iTunes 8.1 installations. Users upgrading from earlier versions should retain whatever preset they had previously been using.

Other Changes

Parental Controls

iTunes 8.1 makes a relatively minor change to the iTunes Store parental controls. With the advent of educational “iTunes U” content on the iTunes Store, Apple has recognized that some parents may wish to restrict their children’s access to the iTunes Store in general while still permitting access to the educational iTunes U portion of the Store.

 

What hasn’t Changed—iPhone manual mode and Sorting

Some iTunes users may recall that back in iTunes 7.3 Apple chose to adopt a “numbers-last” sorting behavior for most information, placing numeric album titles such as “2112” after the letter Z in the standard sorting order. This feature confused a lot of iTunes users, and many at that time assumed that it was merely a bug, particularly since iTunes was the only media player or even general computer application that behaves this way by default. Almost every other application sorts lists by placing numbers first. In fact, even Apple’s own iWork applications sort data numbers-first.

By the time iTunes 7.5 was released it was pretty clear that for whatever inexplicable reason this decision was actually intentional behavior on Apple’s part. In our later iTunes 7.x articles we pretty much gave up on highlighting that this was still working the same way. However, we continue to receive overwhelming reader inquiries on this issue, so we felt that it should be pointed out that iTunes 8.1 still does not change this. This remains one of the oddest recent changes in iTunes.

(Note that these new sort orders can still be manually overridden with the various “Sorting” fields within iTunes itself, but this seems like a lot of unnecessary effort to return to what is expected default behavior).

One other significant limitation that many iPhone users keep hoping will be addressed in an iTunes or iPhone update is proper support for manual mode. Unlike actual iPod devices—including the iPod touch—the iPhone does not allow content to be loaded onto it from more than one computer, even in manual mode. Setting an iPhone into manual mode will allow you to manage the music and video content on that iPhone via drag-and-drop and AutoFill from one computer, but you will not be able to access it from other systems. This particular issue still seems as if it’s a bug, particularly with a lack of specific documentation or even UI feedback about how manual mode is supposed to work on the iPhone.

Notably, however, iTunes 8.1 has still not changed this behavior. It is unclear whether such a change would need to be made in iTunes, the iPhone OS, or both, however as of this writing, this issue remains.

We receive a lot of questions about both of these particular issues, indicating that these are still widespread concerns among our readers. We would encourage those of you who are concerned about issues such as these to head over to Apple’s iTunes Feedback Page to make your views known directly to Apple.

Performance

iTunes 8.1 brings with it some noticeable performance improvements when dealing with large libraries. While most users with average-sized iTunes libraries may not notice a difference, our testing with very large libraries of tens of thousands of items and terabytes of data showed that iTunes 8.1 performs significantly faster than the previous version when starting and existing iTunes as well as navigating throughout the iTunes user interface.

The typical delays when connecting an iPod or iPhone still appear to be present, however, and this does not appear to have changed for better or worse since iTunes 8.

Generally, the Windows version of iTunes 8.1 in our lab environment performs a bit more slowly than our Mac version when dealing with the same library database on the same computer platform. However, we should note that these performance issues in our testing environment are not nearly as significant as the reports we have had from some readers, suggesting that iTunes continues to have odd performance issues on certain platforms that are likely the result of the wide variety of Windows hardware and software configurations that exist.

Bug Fixes

Other than those changes noted above, no significant bug fixes were noted in iTunes 8.1, however our testing platforms have not traditionally had any performance problems with either the Mac or Windows versions of iTunes.

If any readers have noticed that iTunes 8.1 has fixed any other problems with iTunes 8 or other previous versions, we would certainly like to hear from you, either in our comments section below, or in our iTunes Discussion Forum. Likewise, please let us know if iTunes 8.1 has introduced any new problems for you.

Update or wait?

iTunes 8.1 provides some relatively minor new features and definitely improves performance for those users with very large iTunes libraries. However, as usual users will need to decide for themselves if these new features are worth the risks of upgrading. Users of the new iPod Shuffle introduced yesterday wil. be required to use iTunes 8.1, and it will likely be mandatory for any new firmware updates for other iPod or iPhone models as they arrive.

For other users, however, iTunes 8.0 should remain completely functional, with the only significant features being the new iTunes DJ feature—a neat feature but not one that most iTunes users are likely to have much need for.

On the other hand, the good news is that from our testing thus far, iTunes 8.1 doesn’t appear to have broken anything significant compared to previous versions.

Although each user’s mileage may vary this seems to be a relatively safe upgrade. Be aware, however, that this upgrade is a one-way process, so be sure to keep a copy of your old iTunes library database somewhere safe in case you wish to revert back to iTunes 8 (iTunes itself will back up your iTunes library database to the “Previous iTunes Library” folder when you first launch it, but we strongly recommend making an additional backup of your iTunes library database files prior to even installing iTunes 8.1 just to be safe.